Byron Katie, author of A Mind at Home with Itself, reflected in a Voices of Esalen podcast with host Sam Stern that she experienced a life-changing realization. One morning in 1986, “I discovered that when I believed my thoughts, I suffered, but that when I did not believe them, I didn’t suffer. Freedom is as simple as that. I found that suffering is optional.” This was a startling revelation for a person who admittedly was filled with self-loathing and constantly battled thoughts of suicide.
As I listened to her story, I felt the pain she once experienced. I also experienced the joy that had replaced her pain as a result of her realization. It was inspirational and thought-provoking. I then brought to mind the many members of our SA group who continually suffer because of their thoughts. Their self-loathing is generated by their belief that their thoughts displease God. For them, fear and anxiety are constant. Can people who suffer in this way experience freedom from suffering, as Byron Katie did?
As a man who believes in the power of grace, I must respond to that question with a resounding YES. Not only is it possible, it is also the will of God that people who suffer because of their thoughts be freed. Their intolerable burden is unnecessary and a cross that is not intended to be borne. But grace does not necessarily just fall from the sky. Most of the time, real work and real effort lay the necessary groundwork, the fertile ground for grace to grow and be fruitful.
The real effort to attain the grace-filled experience of freedom that will lead to a life that is free from unnecessary suffering is hard work. It demands that we confront our perceptions and our judgments. It demands that we risk coming face to face with what we fear the most. It often results in a profound sense of a loss of self, which is central to the path to acquire holiness. Jesus identified this struggle as “losing your life in order to save your life.” It means coming to the realization that there are no shortcuts. Each step along the way needs to be fully engaged and fully experienced.
If you suffer with unwanted thoughts, powerful perceived blasphemies, constant sexual distractions, and the emotional residue that is generated by this kind of thinking, one step starts your path to freedom. That first step is difficult to explain and more difficult to take, but I will try to explain it.
One process that can help and be effective begins by setting aside a significant amount of time in a quiet place where you will not be disturbed easily. Once in the quiet place, make yourself comfortable and try and center yourself mentally and emotionally.
Then, acknowledge that you are engaging a spiritual process and that this process will produce uncomfortable feelings and emotions. Plus, acknowledge that your random, powerful, and irritating thoughts likely will be overactive as you engage the process. Take a couple of deep breaths and ask for the Spirit of God to be with you and to strengthen you.
When you feel significantly prepared, respectfully ask yourself these difficult questions: Why does it seem that I believe that out of the billions of human beings—all of whom have thoughts and desires—that my thoughts and desires demand the full attention of God? That of all of the people who live or who have ever lived or who will ever live, somehow I have been singled out by God for this kind of attention. How have my thoughts, no matter how distressful they may be, become so powerful that they offend God?
Once you have honestly pondered this first set of questions, take a deep breath and ask a second set: Is it possible that my thoughts do not offend God? Is it possible, even probable, that the only one offended by my thoughts is me?
At this point, do not take refuge in any definition of sin that you believe applies to you. Do not take refuge in any fear that even thinking about your thoughts must somehow displease God. Most of all, do not take refuge in a desperate attempt to avoid the truth that will emerge by confusing it with thoughts that are disordered by OCD and your sickness, which are the sources of this kind of suffering.
Once you have done your best to confront this reality and decide on an answer that makes some sense for you, ask yourself if you can accept and embrace the idea that God desires your happiness, God desires your freedom, and God never desires that you suffer in this manner.
If you are unable to engage in this kind of spiritual practice alone, feel free to ask a friend, your spouse, or a spiritual director to be with you as you engage the process. Sometimes being with another person who loves and supports you makes all the difference in the world.
Be mindful also that engaging this spiritual practice might not be a one-time event. It may well require multiple efforts before you can begin to experience some of the grace-filled freedom that will most assuredly result. Be patient with yourself and respect the necessity that the passage of time is essential to the healing process.
One final note. A grace-filled healing does not mean that your unwanted thoughts will disappear. That is one possibility but not the only one. Rather, you can expect that, with the help of grace, you will no longer believe that the unwanted thoughts represent who you are as a person in any way. You can choose not to believe them. You can choose to see them as what they are: unwelcome manifestations of an illness that are constant and unpleasant but that don’t define who you are.
These unwanted negative thoughts are to OCD what a persistent cough is to a cold. They are simply symptoms of something other than who you are. You are not a cold; you are a person who has a cold. Big, big, difference. When you embrace this perspective of truth, suffering will begin to disappear, and freedom will be experienced once again.
Fr. Thomas M. Santa, CSsR